The former ballerina listens, eyes closed, as the first notes of Swan Lake play through her headphones.
She is seated in the common room of her nursing home, where she receives care for Alzheimer’s. She often has trouble remembering who and where she is. But as the music swells, it brings her back to 1960s New York. She straightens in her wheelchair, lifts her arms, and with her face suddenly full of expression, recreates the moves she once danced as prima ballerina.
Music has unlocked her memory.
The connection between music and dementia care
The former ballerina’s moment of memory, captured in a now-famous YouTube video from 2019, is breathtaking. But it’s not unusual. Even in the final stages of dementia, the brain recognizes rhythm and music.
“Music can bring the person living with dementia out of their shell. If that’s even for a minute, it’s really incredible,” says HopeHealth clinical educator Lisa Wasson, RN, CHPN, CMDCP, who leads dementia trainings for healthcare professionals and family caregivers.
In fact, research shows that music — especially when it’s personally meaningful — is a powerful tool for caring for a person with dementia. It’s been shown to help with everything from reducing anxiety to maintaining cognitive skills like speech.
That’s why HopeHealth created a program called Music for Life, which trains its hospice teams to integrate music into dementia care.
If your loved one has dementia, you can follow similar tips to support and connect with them.
How to find the right music for someone with dementia
“Music touches every part of our lives, and connects us with our past,” says Lisa.
The trick is finding songs and styles that resonate with your loved one, especially if they no longer have the ability to request songs or tell you what they recognize.
- Focus on music from when your loved one was between the ages of 10 and 30. This is known as the “memory bump”: Memories from these ages tend to be strongest. “Think of their most significant life events — clubs, sports, prom, wedding, graduation. Music is part of all of it,” says Lisa.
- If you’re not sure where to start, try searching for the most popular songs and artists from that time. For example, try Elvis for someone in their 80s, and the Beatles for someone currently in their 70s.
- Don’t forget songs that may have been passed on by their family and heritage. Look for songs connected to where your loved one and their parents are from, like local lullabies and folk songs.
- Try different music styles, including religious songs, camp songs, and instrumentals, depending on your loved one’s history and identity. “What was their life like? What were they interested in? Try to find the kind of music that would’ve impacted them,” says Lisa. With a little research, you can even find songs connected to sports teams, political parties and different occupations.
- Watch for their reaction. Maybe they’ll smile, sway, nod or tap to the beat, or even sing along. Maybe they’ll seem calmer. Take note of which songs prompt a positive response, and how. (If they suddenly seem distressed, stop the song immediately and make a note not to play it again.) “It’s trial and error,” says Lisa.
How to use music as part of a daily routine
Lisa teaches HopeHealth’s hospice teams to find five or six songs that a patient responds to, and create a playlist to consistently pair with certain activities. You can follow the same strategy with your loved one.
“Despite all the cognitive issues that dementia causes, a person with dementia can still learn new things. If you use songs consistently, they can learn that routine — and it helps ease their stress and anxiety, because they know what’s coming next,” says Lisa.
- Find go-to songs for different goals. Try for two playlists: energizing and relaxing. “Can you find music that gets your loved one to be active? Or that soothes them when they’re upset?” says Lisa.
- Use energizing music for active routines. Think: getting out of bed in the morning, dressing for the day, preparing to take a walk, or transitioning to a social activity.
- Try calming music any time your loved one is anxious or agitated. For example, a calming playlist may ease the effects of sundowning, and help with activities of daily living. You can even play the music before, as a cue: “For example, if they don’t like the shower, start playing soothing music in the background when you’re getting them ready,” says Lisa.
- Use soothing music during meals too. Mealtime is often a sensory overload for people with dementia, which makes it hard to focus on eating. Music can cut through the chaos. “I visited one assisted living facility that plays smooth jazz at meals, and found it’s really pleasant for residents,” says Lisa.
> Related: Want more ideas and support? Join a virtual dementia caregiver support group.
How to plan music-based activities for dementia
- For early stages of dementia, use music for reminiscing. “Use music to connect over memories and share stories,” suggests Lisa. “Put on a song and say, ‘Hey, do you remember who this is?’ or, ‘I used to love when you played this in the car.’”
- At any stage of dementia, tap, clap or just listen together. Rhythm is rewarding, especially with others. If your loved one can’t sing the lyrics, encourage them to hum, tap or clap with you to the music. Or just set aside time to sit and listen together in quiet companionship.
- Make a simple percussion instrument to play along. Put dried rice in an empty water bottle, and you have an instant maraca. (For more ideas, check out How to plan meaningful activities for someone living with dementia.)
- Dance and sway. This has several benefits, from the joy of movement to the motivation for exercise. Have your loved one stand and dance with you, or if they need more support, stand together at the kitchen counter and sway. “Even shifting side to side can be great for helping with balance to prevent falls,” says Lisa.
How can music support a person with dementia?
Over time, music can become part of your loved one’s daily activities of living, and a reliable source of comfort and entertainment.
Like the former ballerina who danced in her wheelchair, it may even return them, if just for a moment, to feeling like themselves.
“At HopeHealth, we train all of our team members to use music with individuals with dementia, because it’s a way to connect,” says Lisa. “The part of the brain that controls music isn’t affected by dementia. That means the music is in there.”